Candy caps are lovely little critters. They’re small mushrooms, a rusty orange color with white milk that oozes from the gills when they’re cut. When you dry them out, they smell like maple syrup. The first candy cap I found was just north of the Oregon-California state line, all by itself. I’ve been told that’s outside their normal range: candy caps are primarily found in Northern California, especially in the Bay Area. Anyway, I was delighted and took it back to Texas with me in December. It was a really fragrant specimen, and I loved the expressions on people’s faces when I gave them a chance to smell my mushroom. Flash forward to today, and I find an email in my inbox from my mother. The subject line is “The Power of the Candy Cap!!!!!”
I opened the message and read one of my mom’s classically cute emails: Hey there sweetie, here’s a little bit that you may want to save in the “stories of shrooms”… for days, if not weeks, when ever I opened a particular cabinet I can smell a sweet aroma, that I was having difficulty identifying. finally it dawned on me that it was, perhaps, a candy cap smell, although I thought the little sweetie was long gone…not so! As I searched the cabinet, low and behold, in the bottom of the mortar and pestle was ONE, just 1 tiny, VERY TINY, dried cap emanating its glorious flavor! Has it been there over 6 months???? or possibly longer?”
Features of the Candy Cap Mushroom
The scientific name of the candy cap is Lactarius rubidus— it is part of a genus of mushrooms that secrete a milky substance called latex when they’re torn or cut. Although the candy cap is very pungent, the smell doesn’t really emerge until the mushroom dries out. And here’s the rub: there’s another mushroom that looks almost exactly like the candy cap: Lactarius rufulus. However, while the rubidus smells like maple, rufulus has the odor of burnt sugar in the best case. In the worst case, it carries a unpleasant chemical smell. Honestly, it can be quite revolting. This is how I discovered the distinction.
I went mushroom hunting with some friends in Oakland, CA. It was a good day and we found lots of different sorts of mushrooms by the day’s end. The most exciting thing to me were the three large hillside patches of candy caps that we stumbled across. We collected a bunch of them and felt very pleased with ourselves. That night, I stayed at my friend Gwynn’s home. Gwynn lives on a boat called Peloton, which is moored in Redwood City. We set out our pile of candy caps to dry and went to bed. They were all over the small cabin, in the oven, next to the space heater, and we even had to stow some outside to dry the next day. When we woke, the whole vessel smelled like a candy factory that had just experienced a very serious chemical spill. Distressed, we took the mushrooms onto the deck. Gwynn went to work, and I set about the task of figuring out what was wrong with these candy caps. Since they don’t smell strongly when fresh, I had planned to go through each dried mushroom anyway and smell every one to make sure of my field identification— lumping together a bunch of small mushrooms can be a very unwise thing to do, and I had every intention of inspecting each specimen before giving it the go ahead to be used in cookies or something. However, I now discovered a new definition for agony, because I really wanted to use the true candy caps in the pile of mushrooms on Peloton’s deck, but they were all jumbled up with noxious, stinky ruffled milk caps. For 2 hours I sat there, sniffing and wincing, occasionally excusing myself in order to stick my sore nose into a coffee can to clear out the fumes.
The following week, I attended SOMA Camp in Occidental, CA. One of the hot topics during that foray was the distinction between L. rebids and L. rufulus. One way to tell them apart is that true candy caps almost always have a small dimple on the top of the cap. They also tend to have rough caps— it sort of feels like lizard skin— and ruffled milk caps are a bit smoother. Finally, the latex of true candy caps is white but watery, whereas their stinky cousins have a milk that is thicker. It’s like the difference between the appearance of skim milk and half and half. That day in Oakland, I am guessing we gathered from 1 patch of real candy caps and 2 patches of falsies, but I don’t know, because we were so excited we just dumped all our mushrooms into the basket together.
So take this warning from me: try to keep mushrooms from different patches separate!